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Bolivia: General Procedures
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Crime and Punishment > The Criminal Justice System > General Procedures


The administration of justice in criminal matters was exercised by the ordinary courts and judges in accordance with the 1978 Law on Judicial Organization. The courts and the criminal procedures are rooted in the old Spanish and Napoleonic codes and are unified in a single national system under the Ministry of Interior, Migration, and Justice. There are no jury trials, and the presiding judges base all decisions on their own evaluation of the data brought out during the proceedings. The Public Ministry, under the Ministry of Interior, Migration, and Justice, is intimately involved in court procedures involving public or civil cases in which the Penal Code has been violated. It is headed at the national level by two attorneys general (fiscales generales) who operate in the fields of criminal and civil law. Subordinate prosecutors (fiscales and subfiscales) are stationed throughout the country, where they serve in capacities similar to, but more wide-ranging than, those of state and district attorneys in the United States.

The police are responsible for apprehending and arresting criminals, although a citizen may arrest an offender if caught in the act of committing a crime. The Judicial Police (PolicĂ­a Judicial) is responsible for ascertaining and verifying crimes, collecting evidence, and delivering the suspects to the judges and tribunals for trial. The Traffic Police exercises functions of the Judicial Police in cases involving traffic accidents; authorities responsible for air, river, lake, and rail transport assume the same responsibility for cases involving their respective means of transport.

The Constitution requires that police have a court order to make an arrest. An individual detained by the police in a local jail must be charged or released within twenty-four hours, except during a state of siege, when authorities may detain persons for up to forty-eight hours before obtaining an arrest order. During the initial period, a judge must determine the legality of the detention. Prisoners are usually released if they are determined to have been detained illegally. After charging a detainee, the police notify the public prosecutor, who lodges a complaint before an investigating judge, who then assumes the case. An arrested suspect is presumed innocent until proven guilty and may consult a lawyer of his choice if charged with a crime. An individual charged with a crime may qualify to be released on bail, which is generally granted except in certain narcotics cases.

In cases of penal action, the office of the Public Ministry is responsible for assembling the evidence and testimony and, with police assistance, studying the complaint, visiting the scene of the crime, and locating and interrogating witnesses. When the evidence, including depositions, is assembled, the investigating judge holds an open hearing before all interested parties. The public prosecutor makes an accusation and presents all witnesses and documents for the prosecution. Witnesses deliver their testimony as a continuous narrative, without being questioned directly or cross-examined. When the prosecution has finished, the judge interrogates the accused and receives depositions and statements from witnesses who may appear on behalf of the accused. Defendants have the right to an attorney, including a court-appointed defense attorney at public expense, if necessary, but a lawyer is not always provided because of a lack of funds and qualified attorneys. Defendants also have the right to confront witnesses, to present evidence, and to appeal a judicial decision. These rights generally are upheld in practice. Although the constitutional right of fair public trial is adhered to, long delays in the judicial system are common, according to the United States Department of State. Investigations, trials, and appeals procedures are so lengthy that some prisoners eventually serve more time than the maximum sentence for the crime for which they were charged. A United Nations (UN) agency agreed in early 1989 to provide assistance to improve the administration of justice in Bolivia.

The trial judge reviews the investigating judge's summary and makes one of several possible determinations, in consultation with the public prosecutor. The trial judge may decide that the indictment is unwarranted and dismiss the case, or the trial judge may remand the case to the investigating judge for trial and deposition, depending on the seriousness of the crime. The trial judge also acts as a court of second instance for actions taken by an investigating judge. If the trial judge concurs in the decision by a lower court, the action is ended; a judge who disagrees may direct a retrial. The judge also considers appeals from decisions of the lower courts. If the trial judge decides to hear a new case, the proceedings are generally similar to those in the lower court, but there are some important differences. For example, the defendant must be represented by an attorney, either his own or one appointed by the judge. Additional witnesses may be called -- either for or against the defendant -- if the judge feels that they may contribute to a better understanding of the case. The judge may also call on advisers when ready to study the data developed during the trial. Within three days after the trial's conclusion, the judge must confront the defendant and pronounce sentence. The district courts and the Supreme Court of Justice follow the same procedures for reviews and appeals.

Data as of December 1989

Last Updated: December 1989

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Bolivia was first published in 1989. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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